Letter to my Son
Sunday, 27 October
|James Madison 1788 Salesman of the Year|
Good Morning Justin…
It is interesting to note that when George Washington became the first President of the United States there were only eleven states under the new union. North Carolina ratified the Constitution the next year and Rhode Island came aboard in 1790. Despite the reputations of luminaries like Washington and Benjamin Franklin backing the new government, there were many who believed the delegates to the Philadelphia convention of 1787 had overreached their authority in proposing a new Constitution, instead of modifying the existing Articles of Confederation. What they were confronted with in 1788 was the framework for a single nation to replace the loose confederation of states, and a compact between the people and their new government that laid down rules for which ordinary citizens could govern themselves. This fledgling foundation for democracy, untried since the ancient Greeks, was the first step in a difficult and, often painful, experiment in representative government – an evolving process that continues even today.
Getting three hundred million people, of widely varied perspective and passionately held beliefs, to come to an agreement on a single course of action will always be a challenge, requiring persistence and patience from legislators of extraordinary talent. Democracy, within the rule of law, is not governance through good will and comforting voices of reassurance. It is an on-going family argument, a confrontation involving both individuals and groups, upholding with strong convictions their diametrically opposed views. The strength that underlies good government is the recognition that nothing constructive is accomplished without compromise. This means that people on both sides of the bargaining table, having finally struck an agreement, come away with the feeling that they somehow gave away too much for the cause of stability and the pragmatic goal of achieving what is ultimately possible. We can only feel frustration when we believe with all our heart we should be celebrating a clean-cut, unmistakable victory. Clearly, democracy is a dreadful means of managing this enormous, overly complex enterprise we call the United States of America. I am open for alternative suggestions.
They must, of course, retain all the guarantees of personal freedom and restraints on abusive power that I have long ago come to take for granted. That means Democrats and Republicans forever eye one another and sound the alarm over any attempted shenanigans, Congress puts a lid on the White House while the White House threatens vetoes of acts by Congress, and the Supreme Court reigns in the excessive passions of all our elected officials while those same representatives of the people decide who it is that is going to reign them in.
You can thank, among our founding fathers, the likes of James Madison for this Gordian knot approach to governance. Any Federal action of consequence requires a near avalanche of certainty by legislators. Either they are convinced they are working the will of the people or they feel justified in defying the will of their constituents and vote their conscience, knowing full well they may be swept from office at the next election.
We don’t often idealize our representatives in Washington. After all, they generally share the same traits common to many of us, for better or worse. The one thing that does set them apart, though, is that they are willing to stand before us and go on public record in declaring what it is they believe… usually. It sometimes pays to be a bit slippery on the details if you plan to make a career in politics. Showing up every election Tuesday with a majority of voters behind you requires a talent most people don’t have. Being a politician means you need to bring diverse groups together into what is often an unlikely alliance. It is up to you to find a binding common interest powerful enough to override the many conflicting goals these groups have amongst themselves. It can mean something comparable to locking a constituent into buying a Kia when their heart was set on a Beemer. It’s about persuasion and it’s sleight of hand. Believe it or not the founding fathers knew all this. They also were politicians. They were asked to fix the old Articles of Confederation and, instead, they got the voters to drive off the lot in a brand new, gleaming U.S. Constitution. Now that’s talent.